Our moral obligation to address refugees’ plight

June 20 is World Refugee Day, when we turn our attention to the men, women and children who have fled from their homes because of war, persecution and oppression. Roughly 35 million people worldwide have been displaced from their homes, including 14 million who are living as refugees outside their country. The size of this humanitarian crisis is difficult to grasp as a bare statistic.

A little more than a month ago I had the honor of hosting a photography exhibit on Capitol Hill by a photographer who had captured the images and stories of Iraqi refugees during her time spent in Syria and Jordan. Standing in front of one of her photographs — this one of a young Iraqi refugee child who had been severely burned during an attack on her home — the photographer stated “a million refugees is a statistic … but a single refugee is a tragedy.”

The point that the photographer was making, and the point of bringing the exhibit to Capitol Hill, was that we cannot forget that refugees are real people: mothers, fathers, children, brothers and sisters — millions of real people living as refugees across the globe.

The worst humanitarian crisis in the world currently is taking place in Sudan. Genocide is being committed right now in the Darfur region of Sudan.  More than 400,000 Sudanese have been murdered or starved by Sudanese government forces and their allies since 2003. An estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced to camps inside the country, and another 240,000 have fled into neighboring Chad as refugees. As the conflict has spilled over the border into Chad and the Central African Republic, yet another 200,000 people have been displaced.

I believe that we — Americans and indeed the people of all nations — have a moral obligation to prevent such suffering and assist those in desperate circumstances. If we are truly serious about opposing genocide in Darfur, then we must take decisive action to stop it. We must stop supporting the genocidal government of Sudan, and we must enact and enforce comprehensive sanctions against them without exceptions. We must demand that China stop bankrolling the genocide, and we must demand that United Nations forces do everything necessary to protect civilians and save the people of Darfur. That’s the only way to begin to solve the problem of refugees and displaced people in this part of the world.

The U.S. involvement in the Iraq war makes the Iraqi refugee crisis of particular concern of mine.  The latest estimates suggest that there are roughly 5 million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons — about 20 percent of the entire population of Iraq. Families who were once well off in Iraq have fled to neighboring countries where they have depleted their savings and now live in squalor with few if any legal protections. They have little access to healthcare, clean water, food, and other basic services. Children are being pulled from school to be put to work, men turn to the black market, and women are resorting to prostitution to support their families.

Abdul-Khaliq Zankana, head of the Iraqi parliament’s Displacement and Migration Committee, said, “The government’s obvious inability to solve the problem of IDPs and refugees could lead to serious regional and international problems, as there is no clear and comprehensive policy to get them back into their homes.” And earlier this month, our own Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, Ambassador James Foley, echoed this sentiment, declaring, “[We] need to encourage the Government of Iraq to commit the resources, to elaborate the policies, and to create the framework under with refugees will want to go home and will be able to go home and reintegrate successfully in their country. And there is, frankly, significant work that needs to be done.”

That is why I have introduced The Recovery and Stability of Iraq Act, H.R. 5488. This legislation would address the growing crisis confronting the Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons by creating an Iraqi Displacement Coordinator in the executive office of the president. The high-level coordinator would be tasked with supporting Iraq and other regional actors in the creation of a long-term, comprehensive, and durable strategy to address the displacement crisis. The coordinator will work to harmonize international efforts to address the crisis, and encourage affected governments to recognize the legal rights of the refugees.

The continued suffering of the 35 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide is an affront to our American values. On this World Refugee Day, let us rededicate ourselves in support of those who need our help the most.

Waters serves on the House Financial Services and Judiciary committees.